When Lucia Watson, owner of Lucia’s Restaurant in Uptown Minneapolis, conducts orientation for her new employees — she usually has about 70 on her payroll — one of the subjects she covers is the inevitable moment when the new hire is going to quit.
Her advice is simple: Give fair notice, work hard and give everyone a hug on your way out.
“From that point on, you’re a great friend of the restaurant’s,” she said.
Now Watson is finding herself the recipient of her own counsel.
Just a few weeks shy of Lucia’s 30th anniversary, Watson is selling her restaurant, wine bar and bakery/cafe to a group of investors led by Jason Jenny.
“We have no interest in changing anything about the restaurant,” said Jenny, who described the sale as a “basic behind-the-scenes financial change. We have no thoughts on changing the concepts that Lucia has put forward, we think of this as ‘new business as usual.’ From what I’ve seen in the restaurant industry, it’s a major faux pas when you take a concept that people love, and you change it. That’s when you run into problems.”
Chef Ryan Lund is remaining, as is the restaurant’s longtime general manager, Heather Asbury. Both are eight-year Lucia’s vets.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The sale is scheduled to close on Monday.
Jenny, an oral surgeon, put himself through school by working in bars and restaurants, and the industry got under his skin. He’s currently CEO and majority investor of Stella’s Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar, located a few blocks from Lucia’s, and co-owner of McHugh’s Public House in Savage.
His group of investors includes other Twin Cities dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons, all connected to one another through their years at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s my privilege to take the baton from her, for this amazing creation she started 30 years ago,” said Jenny. “Lucia so richly deserves to retire.”
Lenny Russo, chef and co/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, agreed.
“I’m ecstatic for her,” he said. “Obviously, she has had a huge influence on what I do. But she has had an incredibly long run, and she deserves a rest. It’s a tough business, and it’s great that she can sell and look forward to the next chapter in her life, whatever that may be.”
The two parties have been talking for nearly two years.
“It’s a hard thing to do, selling a restaurant, and that’s the reason why no one ever does it,” Watson said. “Everyone closes, and then sells everything for pennies on the dollar. But I wanted a win-win, for my employees, for our customers, for our vendors and farmers and for me.”
Watson, an early and influential proponent of the farm-to-table movement —“At the time, it wasn’t philosophical,” she said; “I was just greedy for anything local because it was the best” — is a member of a rarefied group of Twin Cities chefs and restaurateurs with a national profile. She boasts three nominations for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Midwest award. She’s also the author of “Cooking Freshwater Fish,” a cookbook based upon her long-standing column from In-Fisherman magazine, and co-author, along with Beth Dooley, of “Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland.”
Hundreds of people have been on Watson’s payroll over the years, and many Lucia’s vets have gone on to launch their own restaurants, including Birchwood Cafe, Sapor Cafe and Bar and Wise Acre Eatery.
Watson, 60, informed the restaurant’s staff of the sale at a meeting on Monday afternoon. Prior to breaking out Champagne, she asked them to embrace the transition.
“The reason Lucia’s has been so successful is because you’re in the trenches,” she told them. “You’ve been trained by the best, and now I want you to show them what you’ve got.”
After catering for four years at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, Watson opened her eponymous 36-seat restaurant in a former hardware store on Valentine’s Day in 1985. Two years later, Watson expanded the dining room by taking an adjacent storefront. The wine bar — the city’s first — debuted in 1993, and the bakery/cafe/to-go operation came along in 2006.
Growth was incremental, and Watson wisely chose to concentrate her efforts at 31st Street and Hennepin Avenue S. rather than expand elsewhere. (“And I got asked, plenty of times,” she said.) She said she’s not going anywhere.
“I can’t overemphasize how much I’ll be around,” said Watson, who will remain as a consultant to the restaurant that will continue to bear her name.
“This is still her restaurant,” said Jenny. “She is welcome, anytime. Twenty years down the road, it’s still going to be her vision.”
Watson has plans outside of the restaurant. Her first retirement project? Renovating the kitchen in her south Minneapolis home, starting with upgrading the refrigerator from its current under-the-counter, dorm-size model that she’s used for years.
“I have 28 coolers at work,” she said with a laugh. “The last thing I’ve wanted to do was come home and clean another refrigerator.”
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